Defining but oft semi-forgotten, the War of 1812 has a unique place in Canadian and U.S. memories. And now, at its 200-year commemoration, the question is "Who won?"
In England, it is irrelevant; an American historian once recounted that a Brit commented, "The way you talk, you would think that the U.S. and England fought two wars." Given the defeats inflicted on them, one can certainly appreciate why the English choose to forget what at best might be regarded as one of the "little wars" associated with Empire building/maintenance.
Americans remember three points: the burning of Washington and the White House (and, no, Dolley Madison didn't save the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington, servants did); the "rockets' red glare" characterizing the successful defense of Fort McHenry and providing impetus for the American national anthem; and Andrew Jackson's defeat of the British at New Orleans—launching him into public acclaim and ultimately the presidency.
Conversely, for present day Canadians, the war seems to have evolved into a nationalist touchstone imaginatively combined with an ideological stick to beat up on the terrible, aggressive brutes to the south. But playing poor-little-me victim games is feckless so far as building a nationally confident society is concerned.
Indeed, while assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, I attended a sound-and-light show on Parliament Hill belabouring the myth that the United States had twice invaded "Canada."
Wrong. The United States never invaded Canada. U.S. forces invaded a British colony because it was easier to march to Montreal than to London. During this period, Canada was a geographic description, but a political abstraction.
[ David Kilgour: The War of 1812 made Canada what it is today ]
Before and to an extent afterward, as painstakingly recounted by Elliot Cohen in Conquered into Liberty, French and British soldiers and seamen, Native Americans, and European-origin colonists fought along land, river, and lake routes for control of territory encompassing much of Quebec, Ontario, New York, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Such was labeled the "Great Warpath" by its combatants for whom "The War of 1812" was but one episode.
Deciding who "won" that war depends on your optic. Divided into theaters, victors differed in various battle grounds. Several 1812 U.S. incursions into the British colony were led by military incompetents that wouldn't be matched until World War I British generals attempted to choke German machine guns by stuffing them with British soldiers. Unsurprisingly, cowardly incompetents got their just come-downance (probably their only significant accomplishment was killing MG Isaac Brock at Queenston Heights, a British victory).
Subsequent land combat was more mixed. In 1813, U.S. forces drove British troops from Detroit and destroyed their Tecumseh-led Indian allies at the Battle of the Thames; they seized and burned much of York before withdrawing; and combined a smashing naval victory at Plattsburgh (1814) with brisk repulse of a superior British force making an (un)coordinated land attack.
In 1814 the British burned Washington's public buildings including the White House (an undistinguished piece of architecture much inferior to Jefferson's Monticello home). But here we have no bone to pick with Canadians as the British troops were Napoleonic War vets direct from Europe (transiting Bermuda) before attacking Washington and Baltimore. Was it payback for U.S. troops burning York? If they wish, Canadians can thank British arsonists.
In the southern theater, British troops originating in Europe attempted to seize New Orleans. Their bloody defeat (ultimately generating a popular song by Buddy Holly) technically came after the U.S./British (no Canadians involved) peace treaty had been signed—but not ratified. It is likely, however, had the British seized New Orleans, they would have reneged on the treaty, continued to hold New Orleans, and attempted to leverage concessions in a new round of negotiations.
So, in the end, the British lost the war; the Americans won; and with the exception of some bystanders passed off as militia, Canadians took a pass. Hardly nationally defining.
David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.